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Gambling Trivia

6 June 2001

By John Grochowski

In the race to see which is more cluttered, my home office or the corner of my mind that collects little pieces of gambling history, well, I guess my home office wins hands down. Nonetheless, bits of trivia are trying to escape, so let's empty a little of the clutter:

The slang expression rolling the bones has an origin that is quite literal. Dice were carved from bones for thousands of years. It was not at all unusual in Roman times for dice to be fashioned from sheep's knuckles.

Dice have been made from wood, clay, stone, peach pits, animal horns, teeth, ivory, bronze, porcelain, even jewels. The oldest known dice with regular sides were found in northern Iraq. They're made of baked clay and date to about 3,000 B.C.

Coin-operated gaming devices in the late 1800s included games with large revolving wheels divided into color segments. Players wagered on which color the wheel would stop. They're considered the forerunners of modern slot machines, even though they didn't have reels. The first recognizably modern three-reel slot was the Liberty Bell, invented by Charles Fey in San Francisco in 1899. The machine was so popular that for many years all slot machines were referred to as bell machines.

The bar symbol used on modern slot machines is derived from a Bell Fruit Gum logo. The gum was dispensed in slots designed by Herbert Mills in Chicago in 1910, and other fruit symbols on slots were derived from the gum flavors.

Among the most popular early slots were poker games, although the machines did not usually pay out coins. Payoffs had to come from the operator. After the introduction of the Liberty Bell, poker-based slots waned in popularity, until the invention of video poker in the 1970s.

The game of 21 got its common nickname, blackjack, from a practice in illegal casinos in the early 1900s. Some casinos paid a bonus if a two-card 21 was made up of an ace and jack of spades. Others paid bonuses if an ace of spades was accompanied by a jack of either clubs or spades. The black jack was the key to the bonus, and became the name of the game.

Less commonly used nicknames for the game of 21 include Pontoon and Van John. Both arose in the South, probably around illegal casinos in New Orleans. Both nicknames probably are corruptions of the pronunciation of the French game vingt-un, which means "21" and is believed by some to be a blackjack forerunner. Others believe there are closer connections between blackjack and the Spanish game uno y trente, the Italian game baccarat and a much older Italian game called 72.

Horizontal gaming wheels, such as those used in roulette, were invented in England in 1720 for a game called roly-poly. Roly-poly was similar to roulette, except there were no numbers on the wheel. There were alternating white spaces and black spaces, along with a "bar black" space and a "bar white" space. The "bar" spaces were the equivalents of zero and double-zero -- if the ball landed in either space, bets on black or white lost.

Roly-poly was banned in England in 1745, but the horizontal wheel traveled well. By 1796, modern roulette was being played in France.

The kings in decks of playing cards represent real leaders and conquerors from history, although not all had the title of king. The deck we use today is based on cards designed in 15th-century France. The king of spades represents the Biblical King David, the king of clubs represents Alexander the Great, the king of hearts represents Charlemagne and the king of diamonds represents Julius Caesar.

The four suits represent civilizations that have influenced our culture. Spades represent the Middle East of Biblical times, clubs represent Greece, diamonds represent the Roman Empire, and hearts represent the Holy Roman Empire.

Perfect for Caesars Palace, don't you think?

John Grochowski
John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago, with podcasts at www.wlsam.com/sectional.asp?id=38069. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook (tinyurl.com/7lzdt44) and Twitter (@GrochowskiJ).

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

The Craps Answer Book

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